Gene Jarrett, 'The Life and Times of a Caged Bird: Paul Laurence Dunbar and the World He Made'


Tuesday, March 23, 2021, 4:00pm


Virtual Lecture

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Gene Andrew Jarrett is the Seryl Kushner Dean of the College of Arts and Science and Professor of English at New York University. Jarrett earned his A.B. in English from Princeton University, and received his A.M. and Ph.D. in English from Brown University. He specializes in African American literary history from the eighteenth century to the present. He is the author of two scholarly books and the editor of eight books on African American literature and literary criticism; he is also the founding Editor-in-Chief of the African American Studies module for Oxford Bibliographies Online, published by Oxford University Press. He recently completed a comprehensive biography of Paul Laurence Dunbar, which is under advance contract with Princeton University Press. Among his many honors and achievements, Jarrett has won fellowships from Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and from the American Council of Learned Societies. Prior to NYU he spent a decade at Boston University, where he served as Acting Director of the Program in African American Studies, Chair of the Department of English, and Associate Dean of the Faculty for the Humanities. Previously, he also served as elected Chair of the American Literature Section of the Modern Language Association.



This lecture draws upon a biography I have completed about Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), the first African American professional writer born after slavery. I tell a comprehensive yet intimate story of an African American, in Dunbar, who wrestled with the constraints of Gilded Age America, yet who sought to express or mitigate this strife through the written and spoken word. Reared during and after Reconstruction, Dunbar belonged to a generation of African Americans—of so-called New Negroes—whose parents were slaves, who were adjusting to the capitalist modernity of America, but also who grappled with the public expectation that African American writers had to tailor their creative work to racial stereotypes. Against this backdrop, I trace the entwined lives of Paul and Orville Wright, eventually one of the co-inventors of the airplane, during their Dayton, Ohio, high school years in the last decade of the nineteenth century. These years reveal how two boys—one black, the other white—discovered common ground across the Jim Crow color line: not merely within high school classrooms, where classical curricula forced them to learn the same lessons, but outside them, where the phenomenon of newspapers instilled a shared sense of fascination and forged their partnership in publishing the first black newspaper in Dayton, Ohio, in 1890.


Part of the Virtual W. E. B. Du Bois Lecture Series